Assessment Together and Alone — Alone Together?
December 7, 2011, 8:47 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, practice, renewal | Tags: , , ,

Earlier this semester, I received a newspaper clipping from one of you about the challenges of technology entering into human life, relationships, potential. The New York Times’ Sunday Review featured an analytical essay on the increasing “digital divide” appearing in our civic and material culture(s). We are approaching the end of a semester here, with its invitations to listen and reflect, evaluate and learn what we’ve been learning in texts, contexts, and subtexts. It’s time for a bit of musing, I think, with Sherry Turkle’s (relatively) new book as springboard, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other (NY: Basic Books, 2010). How have these three or four months of intentional formation in MINgroup processes, service-learning, and accompanying coursework shaped your spirit, your habits of mind, your body-awareness(es)?

A psychoanalyst who has taught at MIT for over 25 years, Sherry Turkle begins her third-book-in-a-series with a propositional statement: “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” This text offers an ethnographic and clinical study of the evolution of an unfolding “robotic moment”—a ripeness for meeting human needs through technological devices and artificial intelligence(s)—and the manner in which ever-connectivity (via the Web, the Net, social-networking, etc.) is shaping our habits of mind and capacities for personhood, identity, intimate relationship. Alone Together is her third in a series of texts, following The Second Self, which traces the subjective side of personal computing, and then Life on the Screen, tracing how people forge new identities in online spaces. She’s always been inordinately interested in how computers have shaped being human, and she used to be optimistic about their capacity to allow human-self explorations and (mostly) healthy development. She’s decidedly less optimistic in this volume, with a weary recognition of the ever-human paradox: our seemingly insatiable yearning for intimacy and almost in the same breath, our fear of it, our avoidance of it, our increased defenses against it. In summary, she observes that “in the company of the robotic, people are alone, yet feel connected: in solitude, new intimacies,” and “We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone: in intimacy, new solitudes” (p. 18-19).

To be clear, this is not a piece bemoaning the loss of communities because of technology, nor is it a diatribe against technological evolutions in our midst. As leaders in religious communities and students, some of whom have chosen online-learning environments in which to complete coursework, you need to reflect critically on how you are being shaped, in texts and contexts, but also in assumptions and subtexts of your choices. So this is a piece in which I urge you to think carefully about how your habits of mind are being shaped in context, in your engagement of technological innovation, in your spiritual practice(s) as you share in a common life with your MINgroup, your faith community. You are venturing into worlds unforeseen and unbeknownst to your professors and all must listen carefully to Spirit’s leadings for how we bring our gifts to the world’s table.

So what do these phrases stir up in your awareness: in solitude, new intimacies; in intimacy, new solitudes? As you engage texts in your multiple contexts—home, church, work, coffee shop, school—how do you feel? I can imagine many saying immediately, “Stressed.” Yes. But underneath that. Underneath the sensations of duty, responsibility, deadlines, what awarenesses bubble up, when you sit for a period of 10 minutes doing nothing? New intimacies? New ways of being known by folks you could not have predicted or chosen yourself? And solitudes? Do you have any of those? What are they like? In what ways do you feel alone that you have not before?

Turkle’s work explores the early and late stages of human life in which robots have emerged, for good or ill. The young who have played with Tamagotchi ‘bots’ or little digital toys that mimic human connection since they were toddlers. The elderly who have staved off loneliness or separation from family with a ‘sociable robot’—well marketed in Japan—created for its ostensibly positive effects on the ill, elderly, and emotionally troubled (p. 8-9). In each case, human beings facing self-differentiation or separation from familiar relationships feel connected by sociable robots able to mimic human-emotive response to fear, loneliness, pain. Alone, they yet feel “companioned.” How well do you sustain your own sense of loneliness, if/when it comes? Do you know it can be a gift of new leadings of Spirit? Thomas Merton’s classic comes to mind: Dialogues with Silence. Pick it up. Sit with it. Notice your impatience with its poetic prose and incredibly slow pacing.

Turkle also challenges us to hear how we often choose against non-technological contact—the e-mail over the phone call, the text over the e-mail. As we are encouraged to be more and more efficient in our work, by use of technology, so we feel encouraged to become efficient in our relationships. But is that the life-giving, delight-full direction? In many instances, Turkle learned of those whose virtual lives were more fulfilling or more robust than “RL,” “real life.” Detaching from virtual worlds in which their self-image could be “just so,” these folks grew depressed or fidgety to “be back to who they were/are” in virtual times/space. What happens to complexity of human relationship amidst these options? What if someone in your RL betrays you, or misleads you? Do you maintain connection to work it out, thereby living into a redeemed form of new life made available to us in Christ, made possible when we forgive and are forgiven? Or do we move our energies to ever more connectivity yet little RL discomforts of such inconvenient but deepening human intimacies? Do we move to expect more of technology to meet our intimacy-needs, expecting less and less of those in our “real” circles? And how does this play into MINgroups who meet twice a year, face-to-face, but connect only online the rest of the time? When you have a disagreement, do you let it slide, moving to Facebook to make your point to those who agree with you?

These are the kinds of questions we need to constantly assess for ourselves, with our measured use of technological advancements and the increased potential with connective-media. The opportunities are here for sharing our traditions’ resources for a fully human life, known in delight, with ever-more and potentially diverse persons beyond our geographical contexts. But every step forward in technological exploration may need three or four steps backward to reassess, to reflect on how we are coming to think, to see, to perceive the world around us. Turkle’s concerns center on our ripeness for choosing robots who make us feel good over “RL” that shapes us with discomfort, reality’s difficulties, as well as intense delight and possibility. My concerns mirror hers, but I know the depth of wisdom available in our tradition. What costs must we pay to serve faithfully and fully in a world becoming as it is, without any chance of controlling it, governing it? What gifts and graces do we yearn to offer, as well as what responsibility do we have to bring the Light of the World into these challenging times, concerns, pressures into human being and life?

So take some time this week, this holiday season, to disconnect. See if you can go for 2-3 days without any technological connectivity. See how your mind and spirit respond. How do your relationships change, if at all? Then return to the connectivity with intention for Spirit-listening. How does your prayer life, your practice life, change, challenge, thrive? As always: what are you learning, in Spirit’s tether, in these things?


Home is Becoming Complicated
November 21, 2011, 12:18 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, renewal | Tags:

Home is becoming complicated, abundantly so. When you hear “home,” what comes to mind for you–images, words, smells, memories…? Take a moment, breathe all the way into your shoes and release the breath back into the world, truly listening for what you receive upon the word “home” in your ears. Say it aloud, if it helps get you out of your task-busy mind.


No place like home? All places could be home?

What? What do you hear?

Part of this “way” into which these assignments, readings, postings are all inviting you could arguably be described as living accountably at home, no matter where you are or what your path of service comes to be. What would that be like for you, to no longer know alienation, isolation, loneliness that addicts you? This is not some magic pill that erases suffering, nor is it an easy path of mind-ease and clarity…but I’m continually surprised by the number of Homes it offers. God really is around every corner, even in the painful corners in which we attempt to confine Spirit in paradoxes like theodicy or radical evil. How is that possible? I find myself asking.

Certainly not by our efforts, except for those intentional practices of letting go, of being receptive, moment to moment. Those ways in which we live into the callings we’ve been given AND practice willingness to release our assurances, again and again. Artisanal Theology talks about this as knowing with utter uncertainty before moving into unknowing and resting in God’s complete inaccessibility. I avoid the word “mystery” because i think it can be a cover-up word for anything we don’t want to know about God, but mystery does get at some of this.

Let me make some of this more concrete. I find myself far away from home. I’ve been immersed in conversations and interactions that seem remote from what I know to be lively in sacred practice–contemplative listening, practicing presence, embodied discernment of action and wisdom. My companions here–as they ARE companions of intellectual virtue and more–do not pursue these things, to my knowledge. I’ve not been home for a several days.

Except a 90-minute reunion with a contemplative kindred-spirit. Then another. Then 10 minutes with Juan of stand-up comedy and taxi-cab practice. Then dancing to a central table of Holy Eucharist with fellow Christians and all our saints above us. The Invitation so far from home has been so strongly felt, I startled to find myself a new member of a prayer community, complete with morning prayer book and compilation of “paperless musical” offerings. Far away from home, and I’ve not felt this at Home in a long time, amongst my own.

So home has deepened, broadened, and grown more complicated. Along an artisanal way of Spirit, this home is around every corner, rooted in persons faithful and listening. Those willing to wake up to the immediate moment and know God’s surprise awaits. Sometimes the surprise stings, like when we become aware of a wound or have to stretch our faith over the chasms of doubt. But always the invitation to Home, to that other side of struggle, remains. In dryness and overflow, in doubt and devotion.

Home can get complicated. Blessedly so. Thanks be to God.

Culture Shock 101 at the Table

I have been thinking about ‘culture shock’ lately. Not the real kind, by which I mean the “travel, adjustment, return home” variety that many students experience after a lengthy “study-abroad” experience. Or that a military service-person knows who trains at home, is deployed to Afghanistan and ‘adjusts’ to survive, then returns home again. Both of those are noteworthy, marked with an intensity that does not match my meaning here.

No, the ‘culture shock’ I have been thinking about comes within environments of higher education in which one leaves a ‘home’ environment of some kind, voluntarily enters a different-but-related community committed to learning and critical exploration, then returns back to the home environment in which some kind of sense-making has to occur. During a recent campus lunch with students, I landed in a conversation with several levels of what could only be described as ‘culture shock.’ The remarkable thing—the element that seems worth musing about here—is that it was clearly a shared culture shock.

So here I’m going to share a secret: faculty experience culture-shock with students just as students experience culture-shock with faculty or institutional learning environments. Let me tell you one of my own favorite stories of culture shock. A couple of you will know this already, as I shared it at lunch, but your body-language of surprise and bemusement taught me it might be worth sharing more broadly.

About five years ago, I was teaching an introductory-level course on spiritual disciplines and educational ministries. One element of the course was exploration and commitment to a particular spiritual discipline of choice—either student chosen practice or, strangely-said but recognizable, practice-chosen student. A discipline, in other words, that seemed to make a claim on a student’s learning somehow. Each student was to identify a discipline to which s/he would commit, then weekly, ‘accountability groups’ of that practice would check-in with one another, to reflect on the practice and the learnings.

As faculty, it was my responsibility to sculpt the definition of discipline wide enough to include aspects of classical Christian disciplines most students hadn’t considered as ‘disciplines’ before—hospitality, contemplative practices, generosity, manual labor/work/service, artistic expression, etc.—and narrow enough that purely scriptural-centered disciplines could be chosen as well, such as devotional-reading, praying the psalms, etc. Some of our community require highly structured disciplines within highly literal nuances of the Word; others of our community are urged by Spirit to risk less-structured disciplines with more flexibility, different nuance and dimensions. As faculty, it’s my job to create space for all to learn.

Imagine my surprise when a student from West Virginia announced his spiritual discipline would be hunting. This may not surprise some of you at all. Me? I was horrified. Talk about culture shock. I could not have imagined that any Christian would choose an activity that required taking life in God’s creation. I was also horrified because when I reviewed my hand-written definition of a spiritual discipline there on the dry-erase board, I had not specified: and does not do harm or does not take life. [And remember, for those who may not, my own, more recent Christian tradition is Brethren, peace-church ancestry. Roots still in Nicene confession, but through the River-Brethren faithful…] Ultimately, the student’s request/announcement had to stand. I had established the boundaries and what he said was clearly within them. Culture-shock.

What do I remember of the feeling of this experience? As I’ve said: horror, but one that went both ways. I felt an incredible, negative energy directed outward toward the student who named the practice and inward, toward myself for not articulating more clearly an important distinction I still hold true (i.e. that spiritual discipline is about life-giving commitment to a practice in which Spirit shapes our hearts, minds, souls toward the image of God, the Christ, within each of us). This negative energy could be described as sadness, a bit of anger, disbelief, desire for distance, etc. I also felt guilty. Not only the ‘easy’ kind, meaning: I had crafted a learning environment found wanting, in my own view. But also a complicated kind: I was now participating in a conversation and learning situation that went against my own convictions. I felt in a bind, one I had both chosen and not chosen.

The class took its course over the next three months, with the student committed to his practice and with me listening alongside, feeling a bit helpless and not a little divided. It was uncomfortable, probably for both of us. By the end of the course, however, the student admitted with a smile that his practice was not about the hunting at all. It was the only time he and his son had together all week. It was the only time they could share the quiet beauty of nature and talk about God as father and son, amidst lives overrun with responsibility and challenge. I remember feeling relief, but also a kind of wonder and appreciation of the student and his articulate experience. I knew and felt more of a glimpse into his world, because of this experience and because he had let me see it, know it. For my part, I can say that this was probably one of the most significant events in my own professional development, one which has grown me the most, expanded my heart and mind the most, not to mention my capacity for carrying two contradictory positions in my spirit at the same time. My definition of spiritual discipline now clarifies “must do no harm; must not take life” whenever I make use of this curriculum, but I’m wiser and thankful for the unwelcome ambivalence of culture-shock received. I didn’t change my belief, in other words, but I learned a lot about a lot of things—different norms for communities equally Christian and faithful, my own teaching vocation, role in the classroom, dynamics of Spirit-led teaching (discomfort, sustenance of the discomfort, a-ha moment when a larger frame appears, articulation or interpretation of this larger frame of reference…),different ways of being with another faithful while not sharing worlds, etc.

So what am I trying to say here? I’m not sure all I’m saying, but at least this: one of the most significant challenges for any learning community rooted in an orthodox Christian confessional tradition and committed to Spirit-led renewal is keeping as many voices that want to be at the table at the table. Just like any good family drama, heated disagreements without tempered humility and grace result in blusters of indignation, pushing back from the table and storming away, perchance with slammed doors. Sometimes such distance is necessary to regain perspective, to blow off a little steam. But then lament and grief also become necessary: a voice has left the conversation that requires as many voices as God desires—which is all of them. Had I slammed down the rules in my own conviction, the student would not have articulated the heart of his own practice, nor would I have learned to trust Spirit’s tether in the teaching of us both. The task was one of sustenance and listening, not proclamation and posturing.

The felt-challenges of staying at the table, however, are most usually refused in today’s political-ecclesial climate. Most of us are not trained nor desire to sustain the felt-ambivalence of learning with those whose life or ideas or beliefs or presence contradicts something deeply held within our own. Rarely is the experience of such costly-but-natural-discomfort named either. Rarely are we encouraged to sustain the feeling of discomfort or guilt or risk for participating in something perceivedly against our own dearly held beliefs or against our own home community norms.

But until more of us learn how to carry that weight—yes, that cross—then we’ll just have more and more of what a dying church already has. Until more of us surrender to God’s sovereignty and learn to listen unreservedly and with sustained grace, we’ll continue to ‘feed’ tribalizing factions who profess Christ with their lips but refuse to welcome the least of these as Him to their tables. On the other hand, the better we get at rooting our faith in Nicene confessional tradition, moving in Spirit-led directions, the more culture-shock we will face. The better we get at bearing up under this increasing weight, with grace and humility, the stronger and more worthwhile our conversation will be, the more we’ll know how to share this complicated but expansive Feast with all who hunger.

Yes, food for thought. Blessings upon you and yours, no matter where you live, or what your community’s norms are about hunting. 🙂 I welcome you to the uncomfortable but life-giving learning Spirit brings for all who yearn to be at the Table.

Authoring Lives and Authorizing
October 3, 2011, 8:48 am
Filed under: practice, providence, renewal | Tags: , , , , ,

As you return to your familiar pathways this week—whether musing about some time away last week or ‘simply’ a weekend of Sabbath and service—I find myself asking you to think about how you authorize teachers in your path. To whom do you grant authority in your life? Religious folks may respond, almost immediately, “God,” with all the implicit and explicit difficulties/delights that entails. We meet God in Scripture, certainly, but also make scripture an idol for our desperate clarities. Secularists, or at least less-religiously-minded folks may respond with “Reason or Logic,” with similar difficulties/delights but vastly different expressions. Rationality, whether we want to see it or not, has purely culturally determined facets or orders that do not translate into other cultural settings. Anyone who has ever tried to understand Japanese advertisements in English will know my point.

Here I want to have the question move into our relationships of teaching/learning and spiritual maturity within (or outside of) traditions/philosophies. How do you authorize those who are teaching you, will teach you? Those whom you grant particular voice in your thinking? How do you decide their voice is the one of hundreds today that deserves attention and value?Integration students will be attending to this specifically in these next weeks, but it’s important at every stage of our journey, I think. Later I may urge reflection more deeply with institutional dimensions too, but as you author your lives, how do you authorize those who teach you, who companion your learning?

Authority is a slippery thing, you see. I remember a student of mine asked in a seminary class on the East Coast, “When do I have or get authority as a pastor?” I don’t remember precisely what I said. I probably evaded the question first, broadening it outward for class response. My recollection goes something like this, for what came out of my mouth, “Authority is a funny thing in congregations, for pastors. As soon as you grab it, you’ve lost it. As soon as you believe you’ve lost it, you may find it’s been given.” There’s something deep at play with authority, in my mind. It’s a primarily relational phenomenon—it must be given, not grasped. But there are behaviors and characteristics of a person to whom congregations will give authority, (which I will define arbitrarily-summarily for now as) a responsibility and voice accorded to those who lead or teach, who ultimately encourage the authoring of others’ lives in love, knowledge, and contribution.

One of the figures in my own path whom I have granted inordinate authority is Julia Cameron, whom I’ve never met. She is author, artist, mother, playwright, composer, and more. Her Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity has become a classic in the art/self-help world, confirmed in the variety of spin-off products the market can get persons hungry for more of her work to buy. As one who usually evades what I call “market tchotchke”—items or books that sit on one’s shelf and collect dust—I’ve even purchased more Cameron products than I care to admit. Her work, what she has contributed to my life, holds great authority for me, my profession, my life.

When I was floundering in doctoral training, in search of “a creative dissertation proposal,” I found her book in the bookstore section subtitled, “creativity.” Yes, a type-A person would go to a bookstore to find a book under the label “creativity” to learn how to do it for a dissertation. I was finally out of a relationship that had been a whole lot of work and very little fun. I was completing another unit of some pastoral training as a Hospice chaplain. I was completing, had completed, my comprehensive exams at great personal-mental cost to me and those around me. I was reconnecting with an old college friend, who was to become my fiancé now husband, but neither of us had any remote intention in that direction yet. The Artist’s Way practices began, for work-product: morning pages, artist dates, magazine collages, fairy-tale writing, and more. A world of serendipity—what Presbyterians might call ‘providence’—unfolded before my very eyes (and ears, nose, fingers, mouth, even my mind). An awakening was underway from which I (and my life), thank God, would never recover.

One year later, I had my successful dissertation proposal. More importantly, I had a vibrant life of curiosity, new love, self-confidence (or at least self-commitment), and good work to do. My path within Cameron’s vision, work, and proscribed practices has waxed and waned as I’ve learned more about who I am as an artist, how I become attached to practices as the point, not a path. But anything Cameron will catch my attention with a special authority. “Listen!” I seem to hear in my mind when her work appears in my view-finder, my search-engine box, my Amazon “recommendations.”

So imagine my surprise when I read her autobiography on a plane-ride toward vacation-time with my husband in the San Juan Islands, and I learned I did not like Julia Cameron. The book showed me a woman who has lived a life of audacity, yes, but also privilege and traditionally baby-boomer values. Connections to a well-monied family in NYC, jet-setting life between New Mexico and the Upper West Side, NYC. Pursuit of her artistic path in locations across the globe, so detached from anything I know as real or connected to community life in my own path. All of a sudden, her mantra for my life, “Leap and the net will appear,” became empty. “Isn’t it easy to leap when you have your child’s grandparents’ money buffering a fall, assuring a net?” I thought to myself. How does such a life of at least two homes, various locations, accord with resources enough for all? And where is the life of the community, the common good in this path?

Such questions, such judgments—as that is what they are—are not really fair, of course. It’s never easy to leap into what is one’s calling, and others’ money may or may not be the net it seems to be from the outside. As a matter of fact, the judgment of family-others may make the leap even harder. And none of us in North American abundance can throw the first stone at any other of us. I live an extraordinary life of privilege myself, with more than I need to do what I still struggle to do. The resistance I have to baby-boomers is my own generational-learning-curve—how do we honor the contributions of the previous generation when boomers are the ones against whom we must differentiate ourselves, to work for the world within institutions they have deconstructed for all of us?

Such content of my awareness is not nearly as important or interesting as the fact that the awareness arose. A teacher in whom I had placed extraordinary authority for my path had become more of the frail and real person she actually is. Instead of this authority figure with an aura, of a sort, she became a human being, just like the rest of us. Liking her or not does not really matter in the end. All of the negativity that arose could even arguably be seen as liberating, the next necessary step on the path to seeing my own pattern of authorizing, a next step toward learning to trust my own voice and intuition as it is. Not transferred onto someone else, but as something holy and mysterious that arises at odd moments from within my own being, body, spirit when what I have to offer speaks truly to another, to others. Cameron contributed an extraordinary wisdom to my own path, not only because of her ability to “leap” and “articulate for others,” but also because something in me authorized her to teach me, to lead my actions. She has had authority in my life because I gave it to her. Something in me surrendered to something she had to say, wisdom she was to offer for the good of all, including me.

I don’t know why we seem to need authority figures to discover our own voices, our own teachings (mishna, some of my friends would call it) that we are to offer the world. I don’t know when the moment was that I decided her voice and pathway was to be so significant for my own. I do know that authority is something that Cameron earned in her audacious and fully human offerings. She has walked the walk more than most teachers I have had. I do know that authority was something that I needed to give her were I ever to mature enough in my own self to begin to trust my voice, my gifts to offer the world. I will always be grateful to her, though I doubt I will ever meet her face to face. (She’s an introvert, after all, and struggles with public contact. Learned in the autobiography!) I am speechlessly grateful to have had my illusions broken open here too. But this has taught me that authorizing another can be risky, painful, even hurtful for the one(s) we authorize. Perhaps that is simply how it always is. Growth requires deep connection and then the pain of departure or recognition of frail humanity which is never ‘enough’ in sacred desire.

It seems to come down to the rather staid cliché that no one is ever an island, or each of us needs others—at least an other—if we are to learn most deeply who we are, what we have to offer. Only by the act of surrender to this other do we gain the life we are to live. And that’s the tricky thing…being wise about that “other” is such a crucial decision. Julia Cameron was a safe bet, and I recommend her work to you as teacher, as companion for the path. But more importantly, I encourage you to consider what your pattern is of authorizing others whose voices you value, will listen to. It’s an intimate decision. It requires an act of risk, to trust. But it’s one of those choiceless choices. You will not grow in the ways that matter without it.

Book Providence and Boats

I believe in book-providence. As I am a Presbyterian, perhaps that’s not very surprising. One of our gifts to the Christian communion has historically been this reminder of God’s sovereignty and the manner in which events—planned and unplanned—will eventually fit into the plan God intended from the start. “How Providential!” we say. “Book-providence” refers to something a bit less dramatic than all that. Certain books seem to find me precisely when it’s time for me to hear what they have to say. In my business, we call that a Spirit-nudge, a Matrix-Oracle-tinged collision of a human hunger and God’s sustenance at just the right time.

Predictably, in excess of freedom, I sometimes try to make it happen all on my own. I’ll buy a book or check one out from the library that fits my current image or sense of what it is I need to learn. I suspect Spirit looks on such hubris with a heavy sigh and a smile, “There she goes again.” I sit to feast on such a book and it sits there in my lap, saying almost nothing of interest to me. I take it back to the library or put the book on the shelf with a sense of guilt or remorse for having either wasted the money or the time at the library for something that clearly wasn’t connecting with my prayer-life, discipleship, what-have-you. I forget about it, or more importantly, I lose the image I had grasped in my mind about where I am in Spirit’s learning/teaching.

It could be days, months, or even years later when I’m browsing my book shelf with an aimlessness or restlessness of spirit. My eyes light on a book that surprises me with its title or cover or topic. I pick it up out of curiosity, often not remembering when or where I got it. And in just the right amount of ‘will,’ the words jump off the page at me. I can hardly put it down. Something in its pages feeds something I did not know was hungry. I hear or see or sense a vision or Presence outside my ken or expectation. Book providence.

Books finding us precisely when it’s time for us to hear what they have to say. Authors’ voices on their own experience that come at a time when a particular loneliness opened us enough to hear new things. Never in the control of human will or imagination, but often requiring an intuitive, or even counter-intuitive willingness of human beings to venture into the risks of faith, a path of offering into the larger world what has been nourishing of self or community in unseen hopes that it will be received in grace, with grace, for grace.

Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr found me in this fashion about 3 weeks ago. I meant to browse a chapter over dinner then treat myself to a movie. Pulled into his text, I cancelled the movie-plan and devoured the text in one sitting. I’ve been ruminating on pieces ever since. While his words may or may not be fodder for such “book providence” for your learning, he does chart a pertinent path for all of us to consider on the formative journey of deepening discipleship.

Rohr observes much evidence suggesting at least two major tasks to human life. “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion.” (xiii). He acknowledges that North American, Westernizing culture is very much a “first task” culture. We are intent on surviving successfully, whatever survival or success comes to mean in media-speak. Caught in the thrall of a (perceivedly) successful church pastorate or regular affirmations of our gifts for ministry, we often miss the “tasks within the tasks” we are about, that drive us. Rohr calls this “what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.” (xiv).

He’s getting at a root of curricular intent in Formation/Integration, in the challenges of training Spirit-led leaders for the church and world: if you think you’re doing what you’re doing for the only reason you are aware of, you are indubitably missing all kinds of other reasons you’re also doing what you’re doing.  How’s that for complicated?! Shaping one’s container for Spirit’s journey may seem so obvious to some of us, until we meet others whose shaping-container seems no less valid but so very different from our own. What makes it even more difficult, of course, is that this “task within a task” observation is scriptural. Think of Joseph. Ruth. Deborah. David. Peter. Each purported to be doing one thing while God had completely other ‘ends’ in mind, in the long run. None of us can really know, though we are gifted with conviction.

The formative journey in companionship, then, is learning new skills of paying attention, seeking integrity in the task within the task. Rohr argues that when we learn these things, the first task of life (shaping the container) opens into the second half of human living (filling the container with Godly surrender, whatever God places within). “Integrity largely has to do with purifying our intentions,” Rohr writes, “and a growing honesty about our actual motives.” (xv). No work is more demanding, and nothing else quite requires covenantal companions as much as this does.

The journey of container-shaping also requires sustaining a creative tension particularly difficult for Christians: living both law and freedom at the same time. Both are necessary for spiritual growth. And living, not necessarily understanding. Paul says it in Romans and Galatians. He learned it from Jesus “who says seven times in a row “The Law says…but I say” (Matthew 7:21-48), while also assuring us that he “has not come to throw out the law but to bring it to completion”” (35-36). Regardless of our intentions, we with Western dualistic minds “do not process paradoxes very well. …very few Christians have been taught how to live both law and freedom at the same time” (36).  The contemplative path is the only one I know so far that shapes Christians for such a tension.

So I ask, with an impish smile: how do you understand the “container” of your life, for God’s purposes, within the paradox of law and freedom in our tradition? Have you dressed up what you’ve been taught as God’s Way, disguising reliance on your own or your community’s competence with biblically-accurate words and phrases? That was my favorite of choice. It wasn’t until I began to track my actions, ask intimate companions in a covenantal circle for feedback, that I saw both my ego at its boat-building work in the sand and the rippling waves of grace just off the shore. Professional viability requires practice of good competence, after all. We negotiate the tensions here. We spend part of our time building a convincing, viable boat, knowing that the invitation is actually to invite ourselves and others to set sail in the boat of the Spirit. The boat was not the point. The life of Spirit is. Trusting God’s directions over 88-fathoms of deep-sea water and Leviathan.

Or perhaps your container is scriptural authority… the norms of your believing community? Perhaps your ‘container’ is a denominational identity—in my case, “being a good Presbyterian”—or defined professional role like pastor, educator, deacon, etc.? Perhaps you choose “social justice” or “liberation of self and other” as your container. Whatever you decide as “your own container” here amidst learning the historic-Christian-faith: how established is it and how open are you to having it shaped anew? How is Spirit inviting you into living the paradox of law and freedom, underneath and beyond your understanding?

The invitation to you here is toward shaping a ‘container’ that will last, which means one that must be refined in God’s potentially painful but purifying ways through doubt, failure, “lack of faith,” sustenance of creative tensions. These are the difficulties-opportunities in which seminary students think they are losing their way but which are actually the exact fodder for refining “blind faith” into one sturdy and supple for a much longer journey, a much more powerful witness. It is so human to attempt avoiding doubt or failure, and to assure everyone that our faith is unbroachable. Meanwhile, we miss the holy free-fall required to learn dependence upon the One who called us in the first place. We miss the reality that faith-fractures actually grow stronger faith, if we hold on long enough to welcome the Physician.

Then it gets even more ironic, which philosopher-theologian-poet Søren Kierkegaard identifies as a prime characteristic of faith. However you answer this question of container—crucial to answer and commit to faithfully within covenantal community—the container is not actually the point. It’s only the first half of what God holds in store.

Nothing to do but smile at yourself, saying, “There I go again.” Do the work. Shape and be shaped into a container. But prepare for the point that lies off shore…in God’s good time.